By John Selick IV
Cooking for the holidays has always been a stressful job, especially today when it seems everyone is on a special diet.
We all know someone who has a vegan or gluten-free diet, and that means your tried-and-true holiday meal standby, the green bean casserole, is out, along with plenty of other dishes, right? Complicated diet requests can cause even the most experienced host to throw in the kitchen towel and make restaurant reservations. Instead, parlay a guest’s dietary needs to spark holiday meal creativity.
The green bean casserole has been making an appearance on holiday tables since the 1950s. Meanwhile, American cuisine has evolved to being lighter, fresher and increasingly relying on locally sourced ingredients. Swapping out the canned mushroom soup for assorted mushrooms roasted with olive oil, garlic and thyme will answer that gluten-free dilemma. Tossing them with simply steamed green beans will freshen the dish. Replacing the fried onion topping with caramelized onions will deliver the satisfying flavor you remember from childhood.
Other staples on the holiday table also can benefit from a makeover. Try replacing noodles in macaroni and cheese with cauliflower that has been cooked briefly in water, just like you would pasta. Now the kids will eat their vegetables unless the adults help themselves first.
Cauliflower makes a great addition to the table when you mash it and use it in place of potatoes. Boil cauliflower until tender with a few garlic cloves, strain and return to the pot to let the cauliflower dry out a little. Puree everything in a food processor with a touch of olive oil and some salt and pepper. You have a dish that is hearty, healthy and goes great with turkey.
Turkey? What about the kinda-sorta vegetarian sister who doesn’t eat meat but likes seafood? Many of us can get behind the pescatarian diet because we love seafood. Better supermarkets will have sides of salmon available, which can weigh three to four pounds, enough for 12 people. Drizzle with good olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast it in a 450-degree oven with the skin side down for about 25 minutes. Transfer to a platter and instead of carving, flake off portions with a spoon and serve with a relish of tomatoes and cucumbers. You can still have a nice roasted turkey on the table, but you should only need a breast or two instead of the entire bird. That will save you some cooking time, too.
The thought of cooking for people with dietary restrictions doesn’t have to be a nuisance. Think of it as an opportunity to introduce new ideas to your recipe repertoire. Let’s face it: You didn’t really like that green bean casserole either. That’s why you only made it once a year. Instead, you have a new problem thanks to your revamped approach to cooking — everyone wants to know what’s on the menu for the holiday party.
John Selick IV is the senior culinary manager at Sodexo Healthcare Services for University Hospitals Cleveland. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and New England Culinary Institute, and has translated his classic training into success with the healthcare market by focusing on healthier cooking techniques and locally sourced ingredients.